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Going Out With Angela

by David Surface

He met her in a writing workshop in the basement of an old church. The other women seemed either angry, fearful, contemptuous, or unapproachable in some way. She alone moved and spoke like what in some other place and time might be called a lady -- settling herself into the ridiculously small school chair with a calm, deliberate grace, measuring out her words the same way.

When she read a story about the house she'd grown up in, it was clear to him that this was someone who cherished things. It was generally not permitted, he was noticing, to cherish things. People here wrote the same way they drove their cars, to establish dominance, to force their personalities on the world and mow each other down with their big, angry voices. Like the skinny woman with the spikey black hair who turned on her one night, calling the story she'd just read "sentimental".

"Thank you," Angela smiled. Untouched.

"Thank me all you want," the dark woman wouldn't let up, "Crap is still crap."

Despite the evidence of his eyes and ears, he'd still thought she might need some comforting after that, so he spoke to her for the first time after class.

"Don't worry about her," he'd said, "She's just mad because she can't write like you."

"Oh, her," Angela smiled sweetly, "She's just mad because I wouldn't fuck her."

Her laugh, a throaty giggle, made him feel like something was coming untied inside of him. Her skin was soft white, her features, small and delicate like a Victorian doll, did not go with the black leather biker jacket with its unfriendly arsenal of zippers and the single earring that dangled over her soft cheek like a little scimitar. He knew that if the point pressed too hard there would be a single drop of blood that would look almost black against that white cheek.

They began going out for drinks after every workshop, to the dark little bars she knew on the scrambled downtown streets he still had trouble figuring out. Walking past all the lighted windows with people eating and drinking and talking inside, he used to imagine he was being shown a series of beautifully lighted tableaux he could make his own if he wanted to. Now he was part of one of those couples in one of those lighted windows, and he thought of the young man or woman outside, newly arrived in the city, walking by and looking in --what would they see? A man, still young, leaning across a booth toward an ageless-looking woman in flowered silks and black leather, hanging onto her every word, struggling to make his own equal to hers.

When she talked about fucking it confused him. Women fucking women. He did not understand how that was supposed to work. Did they use something? Angela laughed, "I thought that's what all men liked to see -- two women together."

He had seen it, of course, in magazines and videos, but most of it did not move him and he'd fast-forward through those scenes to get to something he could recognize.

"I don't know," he said, "It's kind of like watching a woman make love to a mirror." "So," she said, "One woman is just like any other woman?"

"No," he said, quickly, " I mean -- I'm talking about that stuff in magazines and films. You know."

"So," she said, "You need to see a man."

"Sure," then, quickly, "With a woman."

"Not by himself?"

He realized he'd never seen that, and he said so. "I don't think I've ever seen that."

"Of course you haven't," she said, "You see plenty of women by themselves, but never men, because the men who make those films think straight men don't want to see that. They don't even care if a woman might want to see it."

"What about you?" he said. "Would you like to see it?" He was drunk now, by God.

"Honey, please," she smiled, reaching into her purse, "I've seen it."

While she talked he was aware of her digging around in her purse. Cigarettes, he thought, until he saw smoke from the one she already had burning in the ashtray. He glanced back down in time to see her withdraw the hypodermic needle from her soft white forearm and slip it discretely inside the slim, cream-colored plastic case and close it with a pop.

"So," she said, quietly, "Does this bother you?"

"No. I mean -- why should it?" He didn't think his face showed any alarm but when he looked into her eyes he knew he was caught.

"I don't know," she said, "Why should it?" He couldn't tell if she was angry with him, then she smiled her sweet smile again and he wondered if what she'd just put in her arm was already working on her. "It does bother you."

"No." He couldn't get rid of the lie -- he'd been raised to lie where other people's feelings were concerned. "It's just -- I guess I'm just not used to seeing that."

"You will be," she said, taking a sip of her martini. He felt a conspiratorial energy surge across the space between them. "I don't think I could ever do that. Not with a needle, anyway." More than anything, he didn't want her to think that he was afraid of it -- or of her. He leaned across the table and half-whispered, "Can you toot it?"

She stared at him over the rim of her glass, eyes wide and unbelieving. "Toot it?"

"Yeah, you know." He put a finger over one nostril and sniffed. She stared for a moment longer, then laughed a wild, undignified laugh he'd never heard from her before and covered her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Sure, John, we're all junkies here in New York." Then she told him. "It's insulin."

The shame hit him so hard that he went blind for a moment -- wasn't that what happened to diabetics? "I'm sorry..." he said.

"Don't be," she said, still laughing a little. "Maybe I should try it that way."

If he could have made himself disappear into the ground he would have done it. Instead, he sat with his eyes shut tight, unable to look at her.

"John," he heard her say, "Open your eyes."

He heard something low and musical like a challenge in her voice, and thought, Kiss me. Then he felt cold liquid running in all directions down his scalp, through his hair and into his collar. He opened his eyes and saw her smiling at him, his empty gimlet glass still in her hand, then the big manager who was suddenly standing over them, frowning.

"It's alright," Angela smiled graciously up at the big man, "We were just going."

For the rest of the evening, whenever he heard her rattling around in her purse he kept his eyes trained on her face and would not look down until he heard the pop of the syringe going back into its plastic case.

"I'm sorry, you can't do that here."

John looked up and saw their waitress looking down at the space on the floor between their table and her feet.

"What do you mean?" Angela said -- quietly, but with an unmistakable edge.

"That," the woman said, thrusting her chin toward the hypodermic needle in Pam's hand.

"This is insulin. I'm a diabetic. "

"I know what it is," the young woman said, "But you can't do that here. You'll have to go somewhere else."

"Like where? Where do you think I should go?" Angela's smile, her voice stayed calm. “Would you like me to go into the restroom? In the toilet stall? Maybe out back in the alley?”

John saw the waitress stiffen. She was getting more than she’d probably bargained for -- John almost felt sorry for her. She made one last attempt, "My boss says you can’t do that here."

"Listen," Angela said, "You tell your boss to show me the law that says I can't do this here."

John watched the young woman walk away and huddle by the bar with a big man in a stretch green sport-shirt. "You were pretty tough," John said, admiringly.

"She's just doing what that asshole is telling her to do." John saw the man point his finger at them, talking faster, the young woman looking down and shaking her head.

"Is there a law?" John asked.

"They don't want me to stop because it's illegal. They want me to stop because they don't like seeing needles." Angela lit a cigarette and frowned against the smoke that curled around her eyes. "If I have to see it every day, they can see it once in a while."

They had many things in common, he was finding. They had both suffered at the hands of men. She in a different way than him, but also not different, he thought, not so different at all. Neither of them had been raped, exactly, but both had got caught in something that had gone too far. He thought of the common phrase he'd heard in discussions of rape, that when sex becomes violent it’s no longer sex, and he wondered if the inverse was true, that when violence becomes sexual, is it no longer violence?

They had held him down. In the bathroom of the high school, on the cold tile floor with the smell of piss and disinfectant in his face. While they were hurting him he'd wished that he could no longer have what he had between his legs so they would have nothing to grab onto, nothing to hit and hurt. If he'd been a girl, he imagined, they could not hurt him, at least not in that way. How could you hurt what wasn't there?

He wondered if she had been held down too. She did not seem to be the type that could be held down. He pictured her dissolving under someone's grunting, blind weight, turning to white smoke in their hands, leaving only her black leathers behind, and one glittering earring.

Outside, he was surprised to see it was still light. He wanted to walk on the hoods of all the cars like stepping-stones, walk all the way to the river like that. With her. They came to a park, a sort of triangular brick island where the avenue split in two with giant sculptures of twisted metal painted fire-engine red, sharp and dangerous-looking. He was looking up at them when he realized she wasn't walking beside him anymore. He turned and saw her sitting on one of the benches several yards behind him, head bowed like she was praying.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yes. I'll be fine in a minute." Her voice sounded flat and strange to him, and her face looked more pale than usual. She was holding herself perfectly still like she was listening for something. He felt panic start its slow, cold rise inside his stomach.

"Do you want me to go get you something to eat?"

"No." He waited to hear I'll be alright in a minute, but she didn't say it. He stood over her, feeling clumsy and useless, knowing there was nothing he could say but unable to keep from saying it. "What can I do?"

"Nothing." He understood and was prepared to do nothing since that was what she wanted, then she spoke again, "Just don't look at me!" Anger flashing out at him through whatever she was fighting. It was the first time she'd ever spoken in anger to him and he felt tears jump into his eyes.

He went to a bench several yards away, sat with his back to her and waited, completely held there by what she'd asked him to do. He could no more have moved than if he was bolted to the ground like one of these sculptures.

He knew she was up before he looked. "Okay," he heard her voice, still a little strange but better, "Let's go." He turned and saw her on her feet, adjusting her skirt and blouse. Smiling and walking toward him.

It was over the third martini that the idea came to him, sitting in the corner bar with the huge red vinyl booths with a hard rain peppering the plate glass windows that flared up with taxi light and faded.

She was angel thin with lovely breasts that were not large but seemed too large for her slender boy's body. "I love the smell of gin," she told him. "Smells like Christmas trees," he grinned and she grinned back, both of them meeting in the gin and the pictures that the word Christmas caused to flash inside. The rain had stopped making noise and for a moment he thought it might be snowing, even though it was only October. He wished it was Christmas so he could give her something, though it was probably too early for that too. He wished she was not gay so he could kiss her. More than once it had felt like they were going to kiss but even drunk he could not bring his mind around to a place where that would be possible. Still, he wondered how she would kiss, whether the kiss would taste like the gin or the cigarettes she smoked or some third flavor that would be her.

He thought of a conversation he'd once had with two friends of his, a man and a woman, about when sex begins. When does sex begin? With a kiss? With the removal of clothing? Which article? The shirt? Pants? What has to be touched? Finally his friend brought it all to an end with his quote: Sex begins when you know you're going to have sex. He knew that feeling, that undertow that could take hold in any room. He thought he felt it now.

It was when he tried to picture it happening that it all fell apart. Any picture he could call up felt ridiculous. The trouble was his cock. The choices -- her being "won over" by what he had, or, instead, her coolly humoring him, humoring it -- both stopped him cold. Also, any pretense that he was different, that he was not just the same as all other men, would disappear the moment that came out into the open.

"I wish I was a lesbian," he said sometime after their fourth drink. He'd waited until then so she'd believe it was the gin talking and forgive him the way she always did. What she said surprised him.

"You'd make a terrible lesbian."

He felt hot blood rush to his face and knew this had actually hurt him. "Why?"

"Because," she smiled, "You're such a man." She said the word man like what she meant should be perfectly obvious to him but it wasn't. He had no idea what she meant.

"That's a shitty thing to say."

She laughed. He saw she didn't understand he was serious, but he laughed with her anyway because that still felt better than anything.

All his life he had been most comfortable around women. There was a softness in him that wanted to come forward to meet theirs; when it did, boundaries fell, but never the one he wanted. For that he still had to act, remind himself to remind them that he was a man, which felt like acting by that time, so soft had he become, and it occurred to him on this night sitting in the red vinyl bar with the rain lashing the windows that he could just keep going, let himself go softer and warmer until every man-part of him had sunk out of sight and there would be two women sitting at this table, not one woman and this in-between thing he became sometimes.

If he could make it happen, he knew he would want it to happen with her. She would know what to do with him, and he would let her.

There would be some slow unbuttoning in the hallway. Both of them in their big coats, his back against the row of mailboxes, her long white hands would part his coat like stage curtains and go to work slowly but surely, cupping his new soft women's breasts that would be there under his shirt. Under his bra. Would there be a bra? If she would like it, he thought, and that made him like it too, the thought of her eyes shining at the lavender or dark brown material, surprising against his skin. For her. His nipples tenting the material in the center of each cup, scratching the palms of her hands moving in slow circles. In the dream he was having wide awake, he felt his nipples graze the palms of her hands, felt it in his own hands and realized he was now her, showing himself to himself, but this was wrong, was not what he wanted, to crowd her out like this, and he looked for a way to bring her back in.

He tried to feel what it would be like to have what she had between her legs between his. But he could not. He could only feel it as an absence, a hole. It was when he thought of her putting her fingers inside him that the jolt went through him like an electrical shock.

She would do it to him standing up, both of them standing in the dark hallway with the radiator ticking and pinging, making its little music for them. He thought of her fingers sunk deep into the hot cave between his legs, her knuckles pressed hard against the crisp hair he would still have down there, hair that would be the same and not the same. She would whisper things into his ear, things he'd never realized he wanted to hear until now.

As the vision frayed and dissolved, he realized what he'd known from the beginning, that this woman's body was a ruse, a Trojan horse, a costume he wanted to wear to trick her, to let her let him enjoy her. Not for her to enjoy him. He could get close to that thought but not close enough. In the end he would shut her out that way. He would always shut her out that way.

"What's wrong?" she said. "Are you crying?"

"You know," he said looking out the window at the cars, "Sometimes I'd just like to cut my dick off. Just cut it off and throw it down the fucking toilet like a piece of fucking shit."

In the long silence he thought he could hear snow falling. Soon he would be covered up by the cold. Then he heard her say, quietly, "Don't do that. You may want it back someday."

©2002 by David Surface

David Surface is a writer, teacher and musician living in Brooklyn. His fiction and essays have appeared in Doubletake, Crazyhorse, From Porn to Poetry, and Fiction. His story, "Tuesdays When It's a Full Moon," appears online in Marlboro Review. He also records some deeply disturbed music with his partner Mik under the monicker Silas Barnaby.

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